James Zemaitis Digs Deep: A Dozen Chairs From The R Collection
Venesta Plywood Company
Stool. 1933-39. (ST707)...
Manufactured Luterma, Tallinn, Estonia.
Retailed by Isokon Furniture Company, London
Bent birch plywood, iron foot plates and screws
This “prime object” of modern design history is underappreciated by collectors and curators. It was originally designed circa 1930 by the Estonian company Luterma, a pioneer in plywood technology. Their English export division was known as Venesta, and Jack Pritchard was their English representative starting in 1925. The stool was first imported by Pritchard in 1933 and retailed as Model no. 1 by his fledgling firm known as Isokon.
Studying the history of these stools over the years has brought me much joy. After Isokon began producing original designs in plywood by Marcel Breuer and others, Walter Gropius was hired as a consultant. His major contribution to the firm was a modernist modification of the stool in 1936, in which he straightened the classical shape of the stool’s cut-outs and seat. It remains incredibly difficult to discern the differences in shape between the original model and the Gropius modification, but the present example, which is in superb original condition, would appear to be the original design. Both versions of the Isokon stool are illustrated in period photographs of the “Isobar” designed in 1937 by Breuer in the Lawn Road Flats, Hampstead.
Examples of the original version of the stool are in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the University of East Anglia Collection. An example of the Gropius modification is in the collection of LACMA.
Chair, model no. 21. Designed 1932....
Manufactured by Artek, Finland and retailed by New Furniture, Inc/Artek-Pascoe, ca. 1938-47.
Molded laminated birch and birch plywood
This is a rare example of the model to have been made for the American market in the 1930s, having previously been in the collection of the Hugh Stubbins House, Lexington, MA. It dates to the early years of distribution in the USA, when Laurance Rockefeller set up a firm to handle the American market in conjunction with the 1938 Aalto exhibition at MoMA. Most of the early American owners of this model seem to have been architects who were affiliated with either MoMA or Harvard/MIT. Hugh Stubbins, who studied with Walter Gropius and succeeded him as department chair at Harvard, almost certainly knew Aalto in the 1940s. I prefer this model over its Paimio Sanitorium prototype, which was an awkward fusion of bent ply and tubular steel.
“Short Chair.” 1936-39....
Produced by Isokon Furniture Company, London
Molded birch plywood seat manufactured by Venesta Plywood Company, Tallinn, Estonia.
Laminated frame recycled from various plywood packing crates.
After Marcel Breuer fled Nazi Germany, he settled in London, where he designed a seminal series of plywood furniture for Isokon, the firm founded by Jack Pritchard. Influenced heavily by Aalto, the Short Chair featured a bent ply seat manufactured by the firm Venesta in Estonia, which was shipped to London and united with its wooden arms assembled from recycled packing crates and other scraps.
The Short Chair is much rarer than the more iconic Long Chair, which we feature in our “Furniture by Architects” online exhibition. Apart from its rarity, I personally believe it to be a more successful design in terms of its proportions and aesthetic harmony. For a breakdown of the chair’s history and construction, here is a wonderful video interview with legendary curator Christopher Wilk of the Victoria & Albert Museum on the Short Chair in their collection.
Charles and Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames...
LCM (Lounge Chair Metal). Designed 1946
Manufactured by Herman Miller, Zeeland, Michigan
Molded ash plywood with original black aniline dye finish and original blue leather upholstery, chrome-plated steel, rubber shock mounts
From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, the pioneers of modern chair design – Aalto, Breuer, Eames - produced seats in three distinct mediums. Tubular Steel. Bent Plywood. And…the most difficult of all, the marriage of steel and plywood. I firmly believe that the most successful realization of the third category is the LCM and DCM designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946. The separation of the molded plywood back and seat simplified production and heightened the design’s sculptural qualities by emphasizing the space surrounding the actual form. The rubber shock mounts were the secret sauce of all Eames chair designs, cushioning the impact of sitting on plywood on top of the frame. In the end, the LCM is a far more compelling chair than the LCW, in which the seat, back and legs were plywood.
Eames collectors love early and quirky examples of the most famous designs, and the present LCM certainly fits the bill. We acquired a pair of these chairs because it is the first time we have ever seen original blue leather seats and backs, contrasted with black aniline dye finish to the wood on the underside. The manufacturer and retailer labels date these examples to approximately 1952.
Lounge Chair. Ca. 1952...
Manufactured by New Dimensions Furniture, USA
Black woven steel mesh.
One of the research bibles for those of us who began their careers in the 1990’s as dealers and auction specialists is Cara Greenberg’s Midcentury Modern, first published in 1984. It was loaded with famous and rare designs by Eames, Noguchi, Mollino and many others, but also chock full of obscure American pieces from the 1950’s “Good Design” era as promoted by MoMA and other institutions. It is where I first saw the wire-mesh designs of Sol Bloom, whose “Catch-All” was included in MoMA’s November 1951 Good Design exhibition. The present lounge chair has been in the gallery’s collection since 2005 and is the first time we have made it available for purchase.
“Colette Chair.” 1954....
Produced by Asko, Ltd., Finland.
Solid wood, webbing
One of the great treasures of R & Company’s collection is the furniture acquired from the estate of “Finland’s Second Designer” Ilmari Tapiovaara (Aalto being the first, of course), which formed the basis of our gallery’s 2001 exhibition Ilmari Tapiovaara: Interior Architect. The designer’s own example of the “Colette” chair has been buried deep in our warehouse for nearly two decades. It is a classic example of midcentury modern low-cost “Good Design.” Two years ago, when we last made Tapiovaara’s “Domus” lounge chair from his estate available, it was acquired by LACMA for their upcoming exhibition “Scandinavian Design and the United States.”
S-Chair, model 276. 1965....
Manufactured by August Sommer, Germany
Distributed by Thonet
Aniline-dyed bent plywood
Verner Panton’s S-Chair is famously the first cantilever chair to be made of one piece of…anything! Gerrit Rietveld laid the groundwork in the early 1930s with the Zig-Zag chair, and followed it with various experiments in the 1950s that anticipate Panton’s breakthrough. Panton originally designed this chair on paper in 1956, but it wasn’t actually realized until he collaborated with a German molded wood company starting in the early 1960s. The present chair, model 276, is the lesser-known, slightly rarer rounded variant of model 275 (of which we also own an example), which has a square backrest. It’s a surprisingly heavy chair, with approximately sixteen layers of glued and pressed plywood.
George Nelson Associates
“Five-Leaf” Chair from the 1964 New York World’s Fair...
Manufactured by Union Carbide
Molded polyethylene, enameled steel
Commissioned by Walter Dorwin Teague, 300 of these chairs were made for the Gas Association Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and only a handful are known to have survived. When a pair came onto the auction market a few years ago, we teamed up with the Carnegie Museum of Art to acquire them. One is now in their permanent collection, and this is the first time we have ever (virtually) exhibited our example. Designed by Ronald Beckman and Ray Wilkes in Nelson’s office, the chair design is a true outlier, an experiment in synthetic materials for an American corporation which reminds me of such famous predecessors as Gilbert Rohde’s Plexiglass chair from the 1939 World’s Fair.
Gruppo Strum (Giorgio Ceretti, Pietro Derossi, Riccardo Rosso)
“Torneraj” (You’ll Come Back”) Chair. Designed 1966-68....
Manufactured by Gufram, ca. 1970s
Imposing in person, designed to deliberately fissure when sat upon, the Torneraj chair is the epitome of Italian Radical Design. One was included in MoMA’s landmark “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” exhibition in 1972. Curator Emilio Ambasz wrote at the time:
“Confronted with the erosion of the simplistic doctrine of functionalism, some designers produce objects whose function is not evident from their form, and whose structural properties, in fact, contradict the behavior one would expect from that form. In such cases, no longer does 'form follow function' but, on the contrary, aggressively conceals it."
As the MFA Houston’s curator Cindi Strauss notes in the recent exhibition catalogue “Radical: Italian Design 1965-1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection,” MoMA sold off the original pieces in its “New Domestic Landscape” exhibition in an employee sale, and it was only recently that they acquired an early example of the Torneraj for their permanent collection. Unlike the Gruppo Strum collective’s more popular Pratone chair, the Torneraj was taken out of production by Gufram for decades.
Wendell Castle, USA, circa 1969
"Molar Settee" in red, gel-coated, fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Designed and made by Wendell Castle, Rochester, New York, circa 1969. Distributed by Beylerian....
My colleague Evan Snyderman has spent much of the past twenty years educating the public about Wendell Castle’s experiments in plastics in the late 1960s. Of the three sizes of the mass-produced and quasi-successful Molar series, the settee is my personal favorite. The white versions, such as the example in MoMA’s permanent collection, are the most common, but they also show their age. This rare example in red is in superb condition.
Gruppo DAM (Designer Associati Milano)
“Libra” Chair. 1970...
Manufactured by Modernariato-Gruppo Industriale Busnelli, Italy,
Polyurethane foam, vinyl, steel
This is another iconic chair from the Italian Radical Design era, whose designers are perhaps the least known of the various collectives responsible for so many of the designs which ended up in “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” at MoMA in 1972. This is an exceptionally early example in original condition, and is surprisingly utilitarian (and weirdly comfortable). Other examples are in MoMA and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
“Rover” Chair. Designed 1981...
Manufactured by One-Off Ltd, London, 1981-89.
Tubular steel, leather Rover seat, cast-iron Klee Klamp joints
Is it sacrilegious for me to say that the Rover chair is my favorite Ron Arad chair? Is it any different than preferring the raw debut album of a rock band over its later refined and professional recordings?
There’s such a glorious punk spirit to the Rover, each seat unique in its wear and recycled from junk yards. There are probably more Rover chairs in the permanent collections of museums than any other Arad design. It is a masterpiece of two manufactured objects *not* designed by Arad, the automobile seat and the Klee Klamp, united with some lengths of metal pipe. Soundtrack: Gang of Four, “Entertainment!” (1979).